[photo of a many years ago Evan Prodromou by Peter Kaminski] Just recently, Jolie O'Dell wrote a great post on what it really means to be an Entrepreneur in the midst of hundreds of people claiming to be entrepreneurs around her:

If you have no capital, no employees, and no product, but you DO have another job working for someone else (or if you’re a full-time college student), you’re not an entrepreneur.

O'Dell writes. I would say the same goes for the words 'startup' and the title of 'CEO'.

I'm ashamed to say that, for many years, I've used both to describe the wrong thing. CEO of what? I was the sole employee (or there were two of us who were partners in the case of Citizen Agency). Sure, I managed projects, bringing together bright people who worked on great campaigns and products, but at the end of the day, we were all just a group of independent contractors temporarily coming together to create something that we usually didn't have a huge stake in. There was little risk, just a lot of creativity. We assumed the fun role while the client assumed the risk.

There is no startup without a product. There is no CEO without assuming risk: for reputation, money, other people's welfare (employees), answering to investors, etc. (all the things that O'Dell mentions in her list for entrepreneurs and more) I'm discovering rapidly that this type of work - having a startup and being in the real role of CEO is very different than anything I've done before.

Startup, I'm in love.

I love one minute knowing with intense certainty that what we are onto is something HUGE and will ultimately change the world, then the next minute wondering if I have delusions of grandeur and should be treated for Schizophrenia. But this is a common and desirable theme amongst founders (especially startup ones) I'm told. Either way, I'm happy and loving it and learning quite a bit about why leadership is not for everyone and is definitely important. Here are just a few things I've learnt in the past few weeks:

  1. A leader sets the pace of an organization. When asked what I most love about my freelance lifestyle, I'd always say, "I can sleep in". And I did. In fact, I banished the existence of alarm clocks from my life, only using the alarm on my mobile phone if I absolutely HAD to catch an early plane. No more. If I roll into the office late every day (if at all), others notice. Their pace matches mine. I've changed all of that. My alarm goes off at 6:30 am and I am up without hitting the snooze button right away. I aim to be the first person in the office every day. I should be.

  2. A leader isn't afraid to make unpopular decisions. I used to ask everyone else what they thought instead of making a real decision. I was afraid to decide anything that would impact someone else in a negative way. It made me popular and liked, but very ineffective. I've been making quite a few unpopular decisions and, guess what? Not everyone likes them, but the end result thusfar? So far, so good. Signing up for TechCrunch Disrupt and pushing the team towards launching there was one of them. Best decision ever. Completely nuts and unpopular.

  3. A leader has to understand every part of the business. Every part. This one makes me cringe and whine. Every part? OMG I hate spreadsheets and those gawdawful buzzwords around funding (term sheets, run rate, valuation, etc)! My eyes glaze over when talking about hosting and technology infrastructure. I struggle with what is front end and back end. I love data, but am a little confused when it comes to database architecture. So. Much. To. Know. But I have to. I have to at least have a decent understanding of all of these things. I can't show up to a meeting without answers. Playing dumb isn't allowed. Leadership means I have a good sense of how all the moving parts of my business works, even if I don't make them move myself. This will take a while.

  4. A leader asks for help. I've always been pretty good at surrounding myself with strong people, but where I fall down is actually asking for help. I think a part of me is afraid that if I ask for help, it'll signal I don't know what I'm doing. Of course, I know that's a backwards way to look at it and good leaders ask for help. It helps me learn what I need to learn (see previous point).

  5. A leader knows when NOT to lead. You know the feeling - you think, "I'll just do it myself. It'll be easier and done right." Well, that kind of attitude will send a strong signal to the team member in charge of that role that you don't value their work. And there isn't anything more demotivating than that. Being a DIY girl, I have to consciously NOT do this. It's not about delegation, it's about empowering people to take charge on their own. Sure, I may know lots about a certain area, but I also have to trust that my team mates know their stuff, too. And trust, well, that's the biggest lesson of all.

    There are more lessons than that to come. I've only been in this role for a short while. But I'm learning quickly and finding out that leaders DO lead, they just lead with a good balance of being IN the lead (as in setting the example or being knowledgeable) while getting out of the way to let others lead (as in asking for help and letting others take responsibility for their roles). And it isn't always easy to figure out when to do what.

    Wish me luck.

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